TRENDS IN YOUTH SPORTS: What’s Wrong with US Men’s Soccer?

So we’re in the middle of October and there are lots of major events happening in the world of sports including major league baseball playoffs and the upcoming World Series, the NFL and college football, and of course the start of the NBA and NHL.

But in spite of all the great goings-on in those sports, it’s hard to overlook one of the major disappointments for American sports fans this past week. And of cours, I’m talking about the US men’s soccer team not qualifying for the World Cup.

Their 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago sent shock waves throughout US Soccer.

But from a positive perspective, maybe this is just the kind of harsh wake-up call that’s needed to totally re-evaluate and re-examine how we raise our kids in soccer in this country.

After all, by not qualifying for the World Cup next year, this means that the top American soccer administrators now have a total of 5 long years to figure out what we’re doing wrong with our soccer program. After all, it’s become plainly apparent that we apparently don’t produce enough talented players out of our youth and travel programs.

I mean,  even the most die-hard soccer fans of the Trinidad and Tobago team thought they would lose to the US. Watching the game of TV, it was clear that hardly anyone showed up to watch the game against the US!

And with the solitary exception of Christian Pulisic, most of the commentary that I’ve read about the US soccer team in recent months is that it has too many older players and more importantly,  very few young rising stars like Pulisic.

When I opened the phone lines on my radio show this AM, I was besieged with calls. Lots of soccer fans and coaches with real expertise who know their game, and they shared the same concerns that I have, i.e. it seemed, by all accounts, that the men’s soccer program was making progress in recent times. But if that’s true, how could they stumble so badly in these qualifying rounds?

How come we’re not more dominant? And yes, I know that in most countries around the world, soccer is their top national sport. But that being said, Americans have been focused on soccer big-time since the 1980s. And yet we’re still trying to find our way with the men’s game.

We talk all the time on the Sports Edge and on this website about the US Soccer Federation and how they are convinced that the only way to get American soccer players to improve is for them to walk away from their HS varsity team and to play solely on a Federation team. Such a choice causes great emotional distress for kids who have to choose between playing with their HS friends on the school team or playing on a Federation team.

But is that approach actually working? I mean, Pulisic is a star…but who else? And remember, Pulisic opted to go play for a German team for his last year of high school.

Here’s the bottom line: How is it possible that we are the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world…and yet, we still can’t figure out how to produce top male soccer players?

Please don’t tell me it’s because soccer is new to Americans. That may have been an excuse some years ago, but it doesn’t work any more. The American men’s team has made it into the World Cup consistently since the 1980s. Or that America needs its very best athletes to play soccer instead of football and basketball. Well, that’s not going to shift because top HS basketball and football players can earn a full athletic scholarship to college whereas college soccer programs only offer partial rides.

And does just firing the coach and the people at the top make sense? Does that make for a big change? Probably not.

THE CALLERS SPEAK OUT

One or two of them offered that we need to have youth coaches do a much better job at teaching the fundamentals of the sport. As one long-time coach noted, “Our soccer parents are so focused on winning that they don’t allow their kids to learn the basic skills of the game. That doesn’t happen in Europe and South America where the skills are more important.”

Another called chimed in and said that with the current tradition of HS varsity soccer in this country, our best players get confused. Unlike in other countries where this is no HS varsity sports – just outside club teams – our kids get hung up on what’s the right pathway for their success.

And of course, with travel teams in the US, there’s a real financial burden to families. In Europe, for example, when a kid signs on for a club team, he actually gets paid a small stipend. In other words, the team picks up the kid’s expenses – not his family.

To my way of thinking, the US is going to spin its wheel in terms of developing top players until the leaders of the US program can finally figure out a way to re-design everything, from the earliest introduction of the game at the youth level with more fundamentals, to a meshing between travel teams and HS teams, and offering some sort of financial inducement to allow a talented soccer player to keep progressing without pushing his family into serious debt.

 

COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: Part Three of Doug Abrams’ Column on the Power of E-Mail

Using E-mail to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part Three)

By Doug Abrams

 Parts One and Two of this three-part column urged community youth league coaches to consider using email to share observations and explanations with parents before, during, and after the season.

Part One provided emails that I, as head coach, wrote and sent during pre-season practice sessions to the parents on the Central Missouri Eagles, our 9-10-year-old Squirt hockey team a few years ago. Part Two provided emails sent to the Eagles parents during the regular season. Together the Parts presented a template for community youth league coaches who seek to enhance communication with parents.

Part Three now closes the trilogy by providing (again in italics) my emails to the parents during the league’s post-season playoffs, a single-elimination tournament for all eight teams that led to the State Championship Game, with its surprises for the Eagles.

The Playoffs: “The Path Is Always Strewn With Uncertainties”

As in any tournament, only one team could win the title. The coaches urged parents to control their expectations and continue their positive outlook:

 “Playoff tournaments are adventures, and the path is strewn with uncertainties. The players understand the meaning of post-season playoffs, and they will play their hardest, as they have while the team progressed during the regular season. (Now that we have finished with a winning record, who can remember that our first three games were two losses followed by a come-from-behind tie?)

At practice last night, the coaches told the players that if they try their best in a game, they will never regret the outcome later, win or lose. We meant it.”

* * * *

The Eagles won our opening-round playoff game against a team we had beaten twice during the season. Then we faced the first-place team in the semifinals. The game was tied late in the third period, but . . .

“The players took yesterday’s 4-3 loss hard because it came in single-elimination playoffs and ended our season.  The game was close, and our players finished with the grace they have shown all year, by shaking the other team’s hands in the proud hockey tradition.

Shaking hands after losing can be tough, especially when the team plays as well as we did yesterday. In recent years, some youth leagues in various sports have even considered dispensing with the post-game handshakes following trouble in the line. A few hundred youth hockey teams played in America this weekend, and half the teams lost. No team behaved with more class than our players did.

In the locker room after the game, we told the players that the parents and coaches are proud of everything they accomplished all season; that the other team yesterday wanted to win as badly as we did; that in an evenly-matched game, someone loses; and that every Eagles player will have future opportunities to shine in hockey again.” 

* * * *

With the playoffs over for us, the coaches sent the parents another wrap-up message a day later. We spoke not only about the players’ on-ice performance, but also about the team’s community service project, which the players had selected and performed earlier in the season:

“We chalked up achievements thoroughly impressive for a team of 9- and 10-year-olds. As the players developed their skills, they carried the team as far as their abilities permitted; earned opposing coaches’ praise for sportsmanship; finished the regular season with a winning record; and advanced to the State Championship semifinals.

The players learned citizenship and empathy by collecting hundreds of cans of food for the Central Missouri Food Bank, the local agency that in these difficult times serves children and their families who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our team’s families.

Each player assumed an important role, and no player warmed the bench. The season is over, and the coaches hope that the families will remember the past few months with relish. All team members — adults and players alike — share credit for a job well done. It was a good run.”

* * * *

It was time for many of the players to turn to baseball and other spring sports — or so we thought until I received an unexpected phone call from the State Championship Tournament director two days later. The two teams that were slated to face off in the upcoming Championship game had just been disqualified. “Would your team,” the director asked, “like to play next weekend for the State Championship against the other team that had narrowly lost their semifinal game?”

Our team manager polled the parents, and the answer was a unanimous “yes.” After two hastily scheduled practices, we drove to St. Louis for title game and won, 7-6. In just two weeks, the  Eagles had lost and then won the State Championship, a winding path that few teams ever travel.

The coaches sent this email a few hours after our victory in the title game:

“We are so pleased that our players will savor the State Championship because they are good kids. Coaches can teach individual and team skills, but we cannot teach goodness, hustle, desire, dedication, camaraderie, and the other intangibles that define teamwork. Guided by their parents, players must bring the intangibles to the rink with them.

Even if we had lost this morning’s game, each player was already a winner for what really counts. A cooperative scoreboard was icing on the cake. To quote the earlier email: ‘All team members — adults and players alike — share credit for a job well done. It was a good run.’”

* * * *

A few days later, the coaches sent the parents another farewell message. Unlike the earliest playoff emails, this one followed a narrow victory, not a narrow defeat. Still, another “teaching opportunity” beckoned:

“When we lost the close semifinal game, we saw long faces in the locker room afterwards because the players took the State Championship series seriously and the loss really hurt. Quite a turnabout now when we see the photograph of the players beaming with the medals around their necks and the State Championship banner in front of them moments after the final game! I emailed the photograph to one of my own former coaches yesterday, and his reaction hit the target: ‘There is nothing like the smiles of a champion. If only we could freeze that feeling for moments when we need it.’

The real lesson from the post-season’s unusual ending concerns not the reward of winning, but the work it takes to win. When two evenly matched teams face off, the winner is usually the team that prepared harder for the game, and then tries harder in the game. Before players can score, they must make sacrifices that might not seem like fun at the moment. Sacrifices such as doing the drills, doing windsprints at the end of practice, scrimmaging hard, and waking up at least three hours before an early-morning game. The Eagles players made sacrifices, and the result speaks for itself.

 The Eagles had some good fortune during the season, perhaps even some ‘luck.’ But, as golfer Gary Player said, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’”

* * * * 

A week after the State Championship game, the team appeared on the mid-Missouri NBC-TV affiliate’s morning show, whose host praised the players as winners on and off the ice. A week later, the team appeared on the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives and the lawmakers unanimously passed a Resolution honoring the players for “developing and maintaining an excellent reputation for sportsmanship and fair play,” and for “collecting several hundred cans of food for [local food banks] that assist mid-Missouri children and families in need.”

Three weeks after the title game and the appearances on television and the House floor, the coaches urged the parents to look ahead:

“The players feel proud for giving 100% effort all season, and parents should feel proud for your unwavering support and encouragement. As you guide your players in future sports seasons, continue focusing on what is really important. Urge your players to have fun. Urge them to train hard for every game and to compete earnestly. Urge them to strive for victory, respect sportsmanship, and carry their teams as far as their abilities permit.

The players met and exceeded our reasonable expectations, and they did it the right way – with sportsmanship and fair play. Unexpected youth league championships such as ours can be the most memorable championships of all because the players reach the pinnacle on their own terms, without coping all season with needless pressure. Would the players have had fun, and would they have achieved so much, if their parents and coaches had dropped hints all season that success depended on winning the state title?

Everyone should take happy memories from this rewarding season. Lasting memories frozen in time. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, a youth league team’s greatest achievements often lie in ‘the journey, not the destination.’ The Eagles’ journey became a roller coaster near the end, but the kids had a great ride.”

HEROIC COACHES: An Interview with the Legendary Bob Hurley of St. Anthony’s Prep

In his long-tenure at St. Anthony’s Prep in Jersey City, Bob Hurley won 28 state championships with the boys’ basketball team. He has sent literally hundreds of his players onto to Division 1 programs on full scholarships. A few years ago, Coach Hurley was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is extremely rare for a HS coach. His two sons, Bobby and Dan, are head coaches at Arizona State and the Univ of Rhode Island respectively.

In short, Bob Hurley’s remarkable achievements fill page after page. He is that unique as a coach. But more than that, Coach Hurley is widely recognized as being one of those rare people in athletics who stand for all the right values when it comes to teaching kids in sports.

As I’m sure many of you know, St. Anthony’s had to close its doors due to financial restraints last year. Bob had served as the head basketball coach there since the early 1970s, and he did everything he could to try and keep the doors open. But in the end, there just wasn’t enough money to keep the school going.

But that school closing hasn’t slowed Coach Hurley down. On my radio show this AM, he joined me from Omaha, Nebraska, where he had been invited to speak and to run a basketball clinic for hundreds of Sudanese basketball players. As Bob explained on the air, Omaha has become a thriving home to more than 20,000 Sudanese immigrants in recent years, and like the rest of the world, Sudanese athletes love playing basketball. “They already have had a number of kids go on to play Division I programs here,” explained Bob, “and from what I say out in Omaha, there are lots more on the way.”

He continued: “It was also heartening to see the transition for these kids and their families into the American culture. Many of their parents wore traditional Sudanese clothing, but their children were clearly dressed as American youngsters.” Indeed, as I pointed out, the is all about the American dream, where all of us at some point came from ancestors who migrated to the US (with the exception of Native Americans).

In any event, I was very eager to get the Coach’s take on what’s going on with the current headlines of college coaches taking bribes from sneaker companies in order to push players to certain colleges. Hurley made it clear that he expects more arrests are going to escalate in the months to come. And that college basketball programs which deal with the sneaker companies are working hard right now to see if they might be implicated in any way.

“The fact that it’s the FBI speaks to how serious and widespread this issue is,” said Coach Hurley, “the NCAA just doesn’t have the manpower or staff to follow through or to enforce the necessary discipline. But with the FBI fully engaged, and then perhaps the IRS, this is going to have a major impact on college recruiting as we know it.

Coach Hurley continued: “I think we’re going to see a coming together of the NBA, the NCAA, the sneaker companies, AAU and so on. They clearly need to correct this problem, and figure out how this should work better. It’s obvious that the “one-and-done” of college basketball is not working. Maybe the time has come to emulate what they do in Europe, where a kid in his mid-teens can sign with a pro team and play on their club team for a few years before a decision is made as to whether he’s going to be good enough to sign a much bigger contract and play for the pro team.”

That’s an interesting perspective, because it would help eliminate any financial inducements by sneaker companies because the kids would already be under contract to a pro team. And if a kid gets to be 17 or 18, and it doesn’t appear that he’s going to be a top pro player, then maybe he goes to college and plays for four years there.

 

TALKING WITH HIS SONS ABOUT RECRUITING

I asked Coach Hurley about how this scandal would affect his boys. He said that it’s more of an issue for Bobby, who is the head coach at Arizona State in the Pac-12. “That’s because more and more of the top players who are being recruited in the Pac-12 and other major conferences are truly anticipating to be one and done players. Kids like Fultz and Ball who last year were selected first and second overall in the NBA. So Bobby is well aware of the pressures that college coaches feel about gaining any advantage they can to sway a kid to attend their school for a year before turning pro.

“But at other D-I programs, like the Univ. of Rhode Island where Danny coaches, it’s different. Most of those players do not expect to be one-and-done kids, so there’s less money floating around. Those kids would of course love to go pro, but already know the odds of that happening are less.”

What’s the bottom line? Well, first of all, we have to wait and see how many more coaches like Rick Pitino are booted out of their jobs, how many assistant coaches are indicted, and even how many HS kids who took money might be charged with a crime.

Once all of that is cleaned up, we can only assume that smart people like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and coaches like Bob Hurley will get together and try to come up with a solid plan that finally puts an end to this nonsense once and for all.

 

COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: Part II of Doug Abrams’ Experiences as a Youth Hockey Coach

 Using Email to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part 2)

By Doug Abrams

Part 1 of this three-part column urged community youth league coaches to consider using email to share observations and explanations with parents before, during, and after the season. The Part provided emails that I, as head coach, wrote and sent during pre-season practice sessions to the parents on our 9-10-year-old Squirt hockey team a few years ago. The team played in the “house gold” league (the higher Squirt house league) against seven St. Louis-area house teams. The season ended with playoffs and a State Championship Series.

Part 2 now provides emails (again in italics) that the coaching staff sent to the parents during the regular season. Next time, Part 3 will provide the coaches’ emails to parents during the playoffs and the championship series.

The Regular Season: “‘Teaching Opportunities’ Ahead”

Our team lost the regular season’s opening game, and the coaches sent the parents this email two days later after the next practice session:

“We can draw valuable lessons from Sunday’s loss because athletes at any level can sometimes learn more from losing than from winning.  Quite frankly, if our team goes 9-1 in the first ten games, it is better to lose the first game than the tenth. In the long run, the team will be better off if the players learn about skills and temperament sooner rather than later.

Here are lessons that the coaches and players discussed briefly in the locker room before last night’s practice:

1)         It is no embarrassment to lose to a strong team when you give your best effort. We lost to a strong team Sunday, and all our players gave 100%. Every day of the season across North America, half of all youth hockey teams lose the games they play. Every losing team returns to skate another day.

2)         Learning how to ‘win like a winner’ can be easy, but learning how to ‘lose like a winner’ can be tough. We told the players that they played like winners – intense, skillful, clean, and sportsmanlike. But we also mentioned that once we started losing, a few players began complaining about the referee or criticizing teammates from the bench. The complaints and criticism were not strident, but they did happen.

The coaches stressed that when you start complaining about the referee, you signal that you are giving up because losing teams focus on the ref. A team wins hockey games only by strong defense and strong offense – by keeping the puck out of the team’s net and by putting the puck in the opponents’ net. When players on the bench complain about the referee, they are not concentrating on what they must accomplish during their next shift on the ice.

The coaches also stressed that “TEAM” means all players supporting one another. Criticism leads to bickering that divides the team. Players who criticize teammates from the bench may make mistakes on the ice a few minutes later, and the critics will want and need their teammates’ full support. 

Both problems – complaining about the ref and criticizing from the bench – are issues at all levels of youth sports, and even in the pros. These problems are predictable because they occur on almost every youth hockey team at one time or another. The players understood what we coaches were talking about.” 

* * * *

In our second game, we faced the team that would finish in first place at the end of the regular season. We lost that game too, and the post-game email (sent after the team’s next practice, acknowledged that the parents and coaches still had “teaching opportunities” ahead:

“Here are the lessons that the coaches briefly discussed with the players before last night’s practice:

  • Hold your head high when you lose to a strong team after giving your best effort. In the locker room after the post-game handshakes, the coaches told the team that when players try their best (as we did), they should skate off the ice with their heads held high so that a casual spectator who just walked into the rink cannot tell whether the team won or lost.

2)         Hockey is only half physical; the other half is mental. For the past month, the coaches have told the players that the mental half of the game is as important as the physical.

We have a young team (mostly first-year Squirts), and the players were understandably nervous before the first two games, as they should have been. Before the game, the coaches told the players that if they try their best and have fun, the scoreboard will take care of itself. Of course, telling players to take a deep breath is easier said (by adults) than done (by kids).  Because much nervousness disappears once a player hits the ice for the first shift, the coaches kept the first few line shifts especially short so that every player could taste game action as quickly as possible.”

* * * *

Losing streaks can leave players and parents anxious, so the coaches wanted the parents to understand their central role in guiding the players from game to game, particularly through defeats. After our first two losses, the coaches sent parents this email:

“As the team improves each week and seeks to break into the ‘win’ column soon, we adults need to say and do the right things before, during, and after each game because the players remain alert to our verbal and non-verbal cues. Sports is important to these players. Words hurt, and the wrong words today can hurt for a long time. The players are more likely to remain enthused if they see enthusiasm in their parents and coaches. Parents play important roles because they spend much more time each week with their player than the coaches do.”

* * * *

Our third game was a tie, a step in the right direction. No victories yet, but the kids felt great afterwards. The coaches sent parents this email:

“The players should be proud of this morning’s 6-6 tie because we reached back for that ‘something extra’ every time we needed it. Pros and youth leaguers alike sometimes shut down mentally when the other team builds a lead, but we came from behind four times to earn the tie.  At the bench between the second and third periods (when we were down, 4-2), the coaches told the players to ‘show what we are made of’ in the third period and the team responded with four goals. 

After the game, we talked to the players about an incident that happened late in the third period. An opposing player evidently said something derogatory to one of our players. (Not worth repeating here.) The coaches told the players that we cannot control what opponents say or do, but we can control what we say or do. The coaches said that we must exercise self-discipline, even after misbehavior by opponents. We stressed that our team plays and behaves right, win, lose, or draw.

The parents and coaches can help by continuing to set the example that we want the players themselves to set on and off the ice. We adults watch the kids play in practice sessions and games, but (whether we realize it or not) the kids also watch us. And children ‘learn what they watch.’

Ethics begins at home, and football coach Knute Rockne was right that “one person practicing good sportsmanship is far better than 50 others preaching it.”

* * * *

Future games produced some wins and some losses. By the last month of the season, we seemed headed for a fourth-place finish in the eight-team league. From the beginning, the coaches told the parents that the players would carry the team as far as their abilities permitted. The players were proving the coaches right, but our email reminded the parents that the players had not done it alone:

“You may have noticed that we have near-perfect attendance at every practice and game. Near-perfect attendance does not happen by accident, and it is quite unusual on many youth sports teams. Kids do not have to play unless they want to. Sustaining  the ‘want’ is a primary responsibility of parents and coaches.

By this time late in the season, some players might look for reasons to skip practices or games if their parents browbeat them about hockey at home, or on the ride to or from the rink. Or if the coaches browbeat the during practices or games. We adults compliment the players with praise for their hustle, but the players also compliment us with their continued enthusiasm.

In a way, it is a shame that rules prevent us from having a different parent join us on the bench each period. You would be thoroughly impressed if you could watch the players’ faces. The players care, and the parents deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

For the rest of the season, we will probably win some games and lose some games, as every youth league team does. Achieving full potential signals success, and we adults should be proud of the players as we ‘keep the fires burning.’”

* * * *

Just when fourth place looked like a lock, we lost 9-2. This email followed:

1)         Hockey is only half physical; the other half is mental (again). When we fell behind 3-1 early in the second period, the mental half began to unravel, as it often does even in the pros. The coaches reminded the team that giving up the first few goals does not assure defeat. Sometimes the easiest time to score is when the opposition relaxes right after they score, and mentally strong teams can sometimes overcome an early deficit (as we did a few weeks ago when we came from behind four times to gain a tie). Our coaches will remain patient because NHL coaches earn hefty salaries for reminding their multi-millionaire players about the very same things. 

2)         During the game, the coaches tried rearranging some of the lines. A few forwards wondered why they were asked to play on a different line, or to play defense; a few defenders wondered why they were asked to play forward.

Tomorrow night we will remind the players that hockey is a team sport, not an individual sport. The coaches know which players prefer skating forward and which ones prefer defense, and we try to let players do what they feel most comfortable doing, consistent with their experience. But we will also remind the players that no team succeeds for long when everyone expects to get everything they want all the time. The kids will belong to teams (in sports, employment, and otherwise) for the rest of their lives; squirt hockey provides an early chance for adults to explain the need for mutual sacrifices.”     

* * * *

What are the sometimes overlooked rewards for parents and coaches? Consider this email:

“After yesterday’s game, the opposing coaches told me how much they enjoyed playing our team this season. We won both games, but the coaches said that the games were clean and sportsmanlike. ‘The way youth hockey should be played,’ one said. I extended the same compliment to their team.

Too often nowadays, we hear about parents, coaches, and players who spoil games because they cannot play with class, win, lose, or draw. Our players showed the same class during our early-season defeats as they did during this weekend’s victories. The opposing coaches gave us a genuine compliment yesterday, and we coaches wanted to share it with the parents, who have worked with us all season to teach the right lessons on and off the ice.

Now that opposing coaches are giving our team well-deserved praise, perhaps the parents should take a moment to give themselves well-deserved praise for setting the right example. At the pre-season parents meeting, the coaches warned that throughout the season, we would sometimes feel tempted to scream at the referees, or otherwise to vent our frustrations during games. The parents and coaches promised to set a wholesome example for the players by resisting temptation, and we have kept that promise all season.

Acting right is much more difficult than talking right. Mark Twain put it well: ‘Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often.’ It is no surprise that other teams’ coaches have praised our players for sportsmanship this season. A proverb says that ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree.’”

* * * *

The regular season ended on a high note:

“Saturday morning’s 7-2 victory guarantees us a winning record this season. Success in youth sports, however, has many indicators. After this morning’s victory, I talked with a squirt parent who made a thoughtful point. The parent said that our team’s greatest success is that the players, parents, and coaches genuinely like one another and get along so well. Camaraderie makes a solid place in the standings seem that much more worthwhile.

With more achievement ahead as we prepare for the playoffs, we hope that each family already views the season with a sense of satisfaction. Well-earned satisfaction is a sign of accomplishment.”

* * * *

We did finish the regular season in fourth place. The next stop was the single-elimination playoffs for all eight teams, climaxed by the State Championship game and its surprises. Part 3 of this column will provide the coaches’ playoff emails next time.

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: New Study Targets Long-Range Effects on 6-12 Year-Olds

This past week, new research out of Boston University revealed that kids under the age of 12 who play tackle football have a tendency in later life to develop  behavioral, cognitive and depression issues.

Now, we have heard endlessly in recent years about the dangers of concussions from playing tackle football. And of course,  there’s the latest headline about Aaron Hernandez and the severe amount of CTE found in his brain. He was only 27 when he committed suicide. Who knows how many hits he suffered to his head starting at an early age? And his behavior was clearly out of control to have done the horrible acts he committed.

Along these lines, this new Boston University study comes forth, and concludes that young kids age 6-12 who play tackle football are lining themselves up for problems later in life.

I’m certainly not suggesting there’s a direct correlation between Aaron Hernandez and the BU study. But then again, it does make you ask questions.

And if sports parents needed to pinpoint a reason why their kids SHOULDN’T play football, they can point to this study.

I asked Ken Belson, the NY Times sportswriter who wrote the article, to join me this AM as I had several questions about what this study really means. And he was very upfront that this research, although it looked at a small group of only 214 individuals, definitely suggested that when kids are young, their brains are very, very soft and any kinds of hits – even hits that seem innocuous in youth football – could have a lasting impact. In fact, there was a study last year at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine that studied young kids for a year who played tackle football, and the number of hits to each kid’s head was in the thousands.

Since it’s been established that it’s the repetitive hits to the head that lead to serious concussion issues, the combination of these new studies from BU and Wake Forest are very troubling.

TIME TO SHIFT TO FLAG OR TOUCH FOOTBALL

Belson pointed that more and more youth football programs, even in football-crazed Texas, are taking these studies seriously, and offering flag football programs instead of tackle for young kids. I personally think that’s an excellent alternative. As one caller mentioned, for young kids who love football, it’s a lot more fun to play touch or flag football. Not only do they develop their athletic skills more, it just keeps them more fully engaged and in better shape.

The NFL, by the way, which has been relatively silent on this issue due to its legal battles with former NFL players and concussions, has quietly been encouraging kids to play flag football as well. That way, by the time they’re in 9th grade, they can then learn proper tackling techniques from well-trained HS football coaches.

These kinds of studies, while certainly frightening, at least provide sports parents with some better direction for their kids. And that’s of course good.

But that being said, there’s something still very troubling when more and more college programs and even the Canadian Football League now have rules in place NOT to have any physical contact drills during the week. That still reinforces the reality that contact sports, like football, carry a real risk regarding concussions.

COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: The Magic – and Power – of Email from Coaches

Using Email to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part One)

By Doug Abrams

 Community youth sports programs and their coaches increasingly seek to maintain open lines of communication with parents before, during, and sometimes even after the season. The term “transparency” is in vogue in politics lately, and transparency also remains essential in community sports. Without substituting for ongoing face-to-face communication with parents individually or as a group, email can provide coaches a convenient, effective way to share explanations and observations.

This column presents several of the emails that I, as head coach, sent to the parents on our mid-Missouri Squirt hockey team for 9-10-year-olds a few years ago. We played in an eight-team “house gold” league (the higher Squirt house league) against St. Louis-area house teams. The season ended with playoffs and a State Championship Series.

Before the first pre-season practice session, I told the parents that I would email them a day or so after many practices and games to report what the coaches said to the players in the locker room, on the ice, and on the bench. I sensed that the parents would reinforce our messages about teamwork, fair play, 100% effort, and similar values if we coaches took the lead.

Email or other written mediums enable coaches to maintain a wholesome team environment, but a coach’s messaging with parents comes with two commonsense ground rules. First, the coach should make certain that the email distribution list contains only the parents’ email addresses, and not the players’. I urged parents to share the emails with their player if they wished, and I believe that they did share most messages. Whether to share, however, was up to the parents in their own homes.

Second, the coach should not send parents any message that would prove embarrassing if a player or any unintended third party reads it. Emails can quickly be forwarded far and wide, as one soccer coach of pre-teen girls learned to his distress a few years ago when his lame attempt at humor at some families’ expense went viral within a few hours. Humor and sarcasm often fail when words appear only in writing on the computer screen, unpunctuated by a friendly tone of voice or a wink or smile.

This column comes in three parts. Part One presents below (in italics) some of the coaches’ emails to our Squirt parents during pre-season practice sessions. Next time, Part Two will present several of our regular-season emails. Part Three will conclude the trilogy with several emails sent during and after the post-season playoffs and State Championship Series. The emails appear in their entirety, except that I have deleted names, passages that relate only to routine housekeeping matters, and passages that would repeat an earlier email’s content.

I hope that this collection of season-long emails portray a team whose parents and coaches put the players’ interests first. The coaches’ emails helped set the tone from the first pre-season practice session, through the regular season’s ups and downs, and climaxed by a surprise ending in the playoffs and State Championship Series.

Pre-Season Practice Sessions: “A Great Way to Start”

For many players and their parents, our Squirt house team was their first experience in hockey, and perhaps their first experience in organized sports. We coaches wanted every player to love hockey and participation in sports generally. Even before the first parents’ meeting, we sent this email to the parents:

 “Last night’s opening practice was a great way to start. These are good kids, they really want to play, and they get along with one another.  These three building blocks – goodness, desire, and camaraderie — signal a team that will achieve everything we are capable of achieving.

 The coaches would like each practice session and game to be a learning experience. As the players hone their hockey skills, we also want them to learn the lasting lessons that thoughtful adults teach in youth sports. With periodic emails after practices and games, the coaches will explain what we told the team and will enlist the parents’ help in reinforcing the lessons at home. Last night, the coaches conveyed three lessons:

 1)  “Mistakes.” We told the players that they must be ready and willing to make mistakes on the ice because making a mistake is the best way to learn.  Try a skill you find difficult, fall down, and then get up and try it again. At any age, some players want to practice only the skills that they think they have already mastered. They hesitate to work on more difficult skills because practicing strengths is more comfortable than practicing weaknesses. Complete players practice both.

 2)  The coaches made a “deal” with the players. If the players give 100% effort in practices and games, the coaches will support, encourage, and teach. Players will not be criticized, ridiculed, or yelled at for trying their best and doing something incorrectly. Performance suffers when players fear the reactions of coaches and teammates when something goes wrong.

 3)  The coaches told the players that a team succeeds best when all teammates are friends with one another. No cliques and no favorites. When we paired off for drills last night, some players immediately (and predictably) paired off with a friend they already knew. The coaches stopped the drill, explained why the team suffers when players favor their friends and overlook other teammates. We required each player to choose a different partner each time.”

* * * *

After the first practice, the coaches wanted to introduce our core values to the parents. This introduction came a few days before the first parents meeting, whose full agenda would include discussion about how the parents should behave in the stands at practice sessions and games. The coaches sent the parents this email:

 “A generation ago, the British Association of National Coaches captured the essence of athletic competition: ‘Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.’ ‘Fair play’ surely means the sportsmanship that our coaches and parents will display all season, but fair play also means much more than that.

‘Fair play’ also means that coaches must treat their own players fairly. Ours is a house league team competing against other associations’ house teams, and every player is important to the whole. Everyone will play in every game. No benchwarmers.

When coaches try to win by taking the fun out of the game in practice sessions or games, the coaches either overlook the hurtful effect on players, or else wake up in the morning wishing for a do-over. Forgetting that the players come first does not bring honor (or, as the Brits spell it, ‘honour’), nor does it bring coaches much lasting satisfaction.”

* * * *

A few weeks later, the opening game approached:

“After practicing for more than a month, the Squirt team will play our first league game this Sunday afternoon.

1)  Ever since the first practice, we have told the players that they are responsible for leaving the locker room as clean as when they arrived. This responsibility means picking up their own tape, candy wrappers, and so forth. On the road or at home, rink employees should not have to clean up after the players. In this and other ways, our players will set the example.

2)  We will have rotating tri-captains this season, with a different three players having the opportunity each game. At this young age, being a captain is part of the leadership education that sports should teach. Each player will get three or four opportunities to be a tri-captain throughout the season. The tri-captains will help prepare the team in the locker room and then assemble the team at the net after pregame warmup, outside the coaches’ earshot. Parents can help by talking with their players about the roles of team leaders.”

* * * *

The coaches’ emails, already well received by the parents, continued during the regular season (Part II of this column), and then during the post-season playoffs and State Championship Series (Part III). More to follow next time. . . .

TRENDS IN SPORTS: New Study Suggests Fewer Kids Are Playing Sports

A new study was just released this past week which  suggests that fewer kids between the ages of 6-12 are participating in sports. In fact, the number of kids playing organized team sports has dropped by a stunning 8 percent over the last decade.

Now, if this is really true, that is quite a drop off. And it’s very troubling.

The study comes from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute. They claims that back in 2008, 45 percent of kids ages 6-12 played in team sports. But in 2017, that number has dropped down to only 37 percent.

Why the decline? The leading theory put forth by these two groups is that because travel teams have become so well accepted as the vehicle for kids to get ahead, it’s now become a case of  financial “haves and have nots”when it come to youth sports.

“Sports in America have separated into sport-haves and have-nots,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program. The group released its research at its annual Project Play Summit on Wednesday in Washington and it was reported in the Washington Post. “All that matters is if kids come from a family that has resources. If you don’t have money, it’s hard to play.”

The conclusion that they are putting forth is that because youth sports have become so expensive in this country, that it’s increasingly becoming strictly the domain of the affluent. That is, that unless a kid comes from a household which makes at least $100,000 a year, it’s going to be very difficult for a youngster to pursue sports on a travel team.

As a result, kids from poorer families are just giving up team sports.

First off, I sure hope that isn’t the case. And let me just say this: while there might be a grain of truth in that theory, in my opinion, it’s a very small grain. If anything, in my observations, kids from less fortunate economic families are even more eager to make a travel team and to chase their dreams in sports than kids who come from more comfortable backgrounds and have other options. In effect, sports is exceedingly important to gaining that college scholarship or to go pro.

Furthermore, many travel programs like to boast that one’s economic status shouldn’t be a concern – that if a family needs some financial help, the travel program will waive fees and the like. In other words, if the kid is a really good athlete, then the travel team will somehow come up with the finances for that kid to be on the team.

So, in short, I don’t know if that theory of haves and have-nots really is the reason why the enrollment numbers are shrinking. True, one caller this AM said he has two boys playing on separate travel baseball teams, and the total cost runs more than $5,000 a year. That’s indeed an issue, and one that squarely needs to be addressed by travel team programs who can pretty much charge whatever they want for a kid to participate.

AN ALTERNATIVE THEORY

Here’s another theory which I propose: Do you think that kids today are walking away from sports at increasingly younger ages because the kids realize early on that they are not the ones chosen first, or who aren’t a lock to make the travel team? And as a result, rather than play on the local rec team, they just give up and walk away from sports.

I hate to even suggest that, but I think that might explain the so-called drop off in kids playing sports.

In other words, if the kid senses that they are not going to be a star, why bother? And their parents – also recognizing that their kid is only average in athletic ability — they allow their youngster to walk away from sports. I mean, why spend all that time, money, and effort with your 1o or 11 year old if they’re not going to become a top player?

That might sound strange, but I fear that’s the kind of philosophical approach more and more sports parents are taking. And if true, what a shame. Kids under the age of 12 haven’t gone through adolescence yet, they haven’t had a chance to learn about the key and essential “life lessons” that team sports can offer, e.g. learning from adversity, learning how to be on a team, and so on. These are vital lessons.

But if the kids are walking away, those lessons are lost to them. What a shame.

 

 

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Why Don’t Parents Trust HS Coaches More?

On this morning’s show on WFAN, now that our kids are all back to school, and all of the fall school sports programs are in full practice and games, I wanted to spend some time talking about HS coaches. And specifically, just how complicated coaching kids in school has become in recent years.

That is, I want to remind parents that being a HS coach these days is a lot different from when they were growing up in school, and that, once I review some of the responsibilities and pressures that coaches have to confront, well, I’m hoping that  today’s Moms and Dads might have a moment to reflect on just how tough these jobs are.

But in thinking about the overall relationship between coaches and our kids, I think the overriding and pressing question is this:

As sports parents, why don’t we trust our kids’ coaches more?

Now, I recognize that’s a very bold and accusatory question. But the truth is, for too many sports parents, there’s a general uneasiness or wariness that our kids’ HS coaches are somehow not doing a good enough job, or that they are not sharing our own perspective on how talented your kid is, or that even the HS coach places too much emphasis on the team’s success and can jeopardize your kid’s health in order to win.

These are serious concerns, to be sure. But based upon the outreach of calls this AM, this is a topic of pressing interest, especially from coaches. In fact, let’s go over a job description for a typical HS coach:

1. Coaches have to organize every practice session…have to spend time preparing game plans for the upcoming opponent….have to, in many cases, read scouting reports of the opposing teams, or spend copious amounts of time watching videotape of opponents as well as of their own players.

2 -They of course have to be with their athletes at all of the practices and games or events…which usually is after school hours or on weekends…

3 – They have to know the rules of their sport intimately as well as recent rule changes..they have to know the various game strategies….they have to know the basics of first aid, such as CPR, concussion protocol, and so on.

4  -They have to not only get to know each of their athletes well, but they also have to literally teach, or coach, each kid on the finer points of their game. That’s the essence of coaching.

5- Along those lines, the coach needs to develop a kind of rapport with each youngster, as in, some kids need to be given total positive feedback, others respond better to sharp criticism, and so on. It’s up to the coach to learn how to handle each youngster’s psyche.

6-And coaches have to remind their players about good sportsmanship and then enforce it….remind players about adhering to the school’s Code of Conduct…remind them constantly about the dangers of social media….remind them to keep their studies in order and in good shape.

7-And of course, the coach is constantly evaluating the kid’s talents on a daily basis…as in, do I have the best kids as starters? Are they playing the right positions? Or are there other kids on the team that I have overlooked? Do some of these kids perform better in game situations than in practice?

8-And yes…there’s one more thing on the coach’s docket….his team is supposed to win…maybe not necessarily a league championship every year, but certainly be over .500.

9- The coaching salary? For all of this hard and endless work, maybe the coach earns a few thousand dollars for the season. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. But certainly HS coaches are not making the kinds of extraordinary salaries that college coaches earn.

In short, you would be hard pressed to come up with a “part-time” job that is more time-consuming or more demanding than being a HS coach.

“IF I TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUR KID, WILL WE STILL BE FRIENDS?”

One of the callers today, who is a long-time HS coach, said this question is at the core of every coach/parent interaction. That is, coaches are hired to be objective about each kid’s talent, and rarely does the involved sports parent see his or her child in the same way as the coach. And that’s where the problems begin. Several coaches noted today that parents are so invested with their athlete’s progress, e.g. travel team play, travel team coaches telling kids and their parents how much progress they have made, how  they could play in college, and so on that what that kid tries out for the varsity and finds him or herself not even starting or having to share time, this is where the friction begins.

So if a coach tells a parent the truth about an athlete — he’s not as fast as you think, or he’s not as gifted, or there are better players on the team – that’s when parents see red and any sense of trust in the coach immediately evaporates. And that, said several callers, is when the troubles begin. Even worse, when parents see red, it is very, very hard to get them to calm down or to try and see the athlete’s talents from the coach’s perspective.

And as one coach remarked, “What the individual parent doesn’t seem to realize that even though his kid played AAU ball all summer and improved their skills, so did most of the other kids on the basketball team  — and they all improved. As such, they ALL come into practice expecting – along with their parents – that they are going to be stars. And of course, that just can’t happen.”

In sum, this is where we are these days. And for any HS coach, it just gets tougher and tougher.

 

TRENDS IN SPORTS: TIME Magazine Cover Story Reveals Youth Sports is a $15 Billion Industry

Hard to believe, but true.

I grew up during a time when youth sports were not influenced by parents, travel teams, elite camps, the college recruiting of middle school kids, and so on. When you went outside to play with your friends, you found an empty field or sandlot, put down markers for boundaries, and depending on the season, you played touch football, baseball, basketball, soccer, whatever. Markers usually consisted on somebody’s jacket or a sweater to show where out of bounds were. There were no white lines. If your (wooden) baseball bat broke, you didn’t throw it away. Rather, you took it home, found some small nails to fix it, and taped it up so you could use it again.

I know, I know. This all sounds ancient and prehistoric. No youngster today could even imagine this kind of world. But of course, it did exist, and it existed not that long ago.

That’s why Sean Gregory’s cover story in this week’s TIME Magazine had such great impact. Why? Because it summarized the out of control parental obsession with their kids in sports, and even worse, that this obsession – and that’s what it is – not only shows no sign of letting up, if anything, it’s only accelerating. On my show this AM, Sean talked about 10-year-old Joey Baseball, a talented but smallish kid who travels all around the country to play baseball. He’s able to do this because his parents are affluent and they figure that since they have the financial means to do this, why not? But as Sean also cautioned, these parents know that everything might change when their son becomes a teenager, and he may no longer be the star that he is today.

JOEY BASEBALL?

Even worse, Sean writes about other parents of other promising athletes, and how they spend a fortune to make sure their kids play on elite travel teams. Problem is, these families are not as well off as Joey Baseball, but these Moms and Dads are hellbent on making sure their kid gets an athletic scholarship. But as you know, just because your kid is a star at age 10 or 12 doesn’t guarantee they will grow into being a star at age 18. And that’s the rub.

In short, travel teams and private coaching have become big, big business, and the article details how cleverAmerican entrepreneurs have tapped into this market and made millions. Witness the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, which used to run slo-pitch softball tournaments back in the day. They pivoted to now running youth sports tournaments in Florida, and business is booming. And because USSAA is a not-for-profit, not only do they enjoy the benefits of that status, but their CEO earns more than $800,000 a year. Before you become outraged or envious, you should know that this is all perfectly legal.

Same thing with LL Baseball. As a not-for-profit operation, they like to boast about all of their volunteers, including coaches, umpires, ushers, and so on. Of course, LL Baseball doesn’t talk about having $87 million in its cash reserves, or their multi-million TV contracts or corporate sponsors. And their CEO makes close to $500,000. How much do the kids and their families who make it to the playoffs in Williamsport? Well, they get the fun of making the trip, and that’s about it.

ARE TIMES CHANGING?

Personally, I do think we’re gradually reaching a turning point in youth sports. Parents will soon begin to figure out that it’s just too much money, time, and effort to expend on a kid who may or may not make a college team. Or, as Sean pointed out, we’re already seeing this become the domain of only wealthy families who can afford the “pay-to-play” mentality.

And of course, despite their having a fancy brochure or slick website, the simple truth is that no travel or elite teams or private coaches are regulated, certified, or overseen by any state or federal agency. As a result, it’s all caveat emptor.

Here’s hoping that someday soon that real guidelines and rules are finally put in place. I have preached for a long time that this would be a perfect opportunity for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to jump in, but alas, that still hasn’t happened.

HEROIC ATHLETES: The Magic of Kids Who Know No Boundaries

Another Youth Leaguer Who Overcomes Physical Challenges

 By Doug Abrams

Youth sports headlines these days sometimes seem calculated to make many readers cringe. Stories about parental sniping and even violence. Stories about coaches who cut young kids in tryouts and bench young kids who make the roster. Stories about referees under siege. Stories about financially strapped families unable to afford escalating costs of participation.

But every so often, a news story captures the essence of wholesome athletic competition. The story shines the spotlight on what youth sports can be – a powerful, perhaps unique, vehicle for enriching children’s lives on and off the field.

On September 25, writer Ian Frazer profiled 12-year-old Jack Coggin in the Forsyth County (Ga.) News. The headline tells the story: “Lambert Youth Football Team Embraces Teammate With Cerebral Palsy.”

A few moments after each game, the teams line up, Jack in uniform gets the ball, his Longhorns teammates block for him, opponents clear the path, and he runs for a touchdown. The idea of enrolling Jack came initially from the Longhorns’ coach, and the team’s parents (including Jack’s mother and father) are supportive. “I’ve had one parent say they were upset about their kid’s playing time,” the coach told Frazer, “and after seeing Jack score and how happy he was, it kind of put things in perspective.”

Opening Doors

Jack Coggin’s love for football — and his acceptance by teammates, parents, and opponents — demonstrate that sports can make a difference for physically challenged boys and girls who otherwise might be cast aside. To the maximum extent possible, teams and leagues should encourage children with physical challenges to participate if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise safety. Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division or USA Hockey’s Sled Hockey, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.

The media regularly reports about children with Down syndrome, amputations, or other conditions who earn their teammates’ acceptance, support, and respect. Some of these children  see regular game action; others may serve as team manager, perhaps seeing symbolic action late in selected games, or near the end of the season. One way or another, the Longhorns youth football squad shows that well-crafted encouragement, driven by empathy and understanding, can open doors.

Sports done right enables children with disabilities to learn, enjoy healthy lifestyles, hone their social skills, and develop self-esteem. As they fulfill their needs and desires, these children teach valuable lessons about surmounting barriers through sheer perseverance and determination. A few years ago Sami Stoner, a blind Ohio high school cross country runner who competed accompanied by her guide dog, delivered teammates and opponents a lesson that extends beyond the race course: “Even if you have a disability or you don’t think you can do something, there’s almost always a way.”

Excellence and Adventure

Journalist George F. Will is right that, “Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” Experience in sports, concurred writer James A. Michener, “enlarge[s] the human adventure.”

Excellence and the human adventure extend beyond the scoreboard. Not reflected by any posted numbers, few examples of excellence emerge more vivid than examples set by athletes who overcome physical barriers to play to their best. And the human adventure assumes sharper focus when athletes who set the example, and team members and even opponents who support them, have not yet left their teen years.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden explained the core stimulus basic in athletic and non-athletic endeavors alike: “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” In public schools and youth leagues, the impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its best.  Inclusion is good for young athletes with disabilities, good for their teammates and opponents, and good for America.
Sources: Ian Frazer, Lambert Youth Football Team Embraces Teammate With Cerebral Palsy, Forsyth County (Ga.) News, Aug. 24, 2017; Douglas E. Abrams, Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Wakana Ueda, Sami Stoner, Doug Wells and Taylor Howell, http://www.momsteam.com/blind-athletes/youth-sports-heroes-month-wakana-ueda-sami-stoner-doug-wells-taylor-howell (2012).